Excerpt: 'In The World But Not of It'
WAITING FOR GOD
On Sunday, September 11, 1988, my grandparents spent the day in their living room in a small town in northern Ontario, waiting for Jesus Christ to return and rapture them to heaven.
By then, I was sixteen and had already fallen away from the Plymouth Brethren, the small fundamentalist sect in which my grandfather was a lay preacher, what believers called a laboring brother. Years later, I wondered what might have led an otherwise sensible man to chance everything, his reputation and livelihood, on such a hope. Playing out the events in my mind, I wondered how he and my grandmother had passed the day.
During the Rapture, the first thing my grandfather would have expected was the trump of the archangel. A brassy, triumphant staccato, perhaps, of the sort that accompanied a charge of the light cavalry. But maybe the call would sound less familiar, uncanny, a subsonic vibration transmitted on a bandwidth only the faithful had been tuned to receive. This was, after all, the "Secret Rapture." Next came the fun part — the flying. We had been told that the dead in Christ would rise first, followed by the living. The Rapture filled my mind with questions. Did you leave your clothes behind? If so, were you naked? If you had a spiritual body, would you still feel the wind in your hair? Did you float up like a balloon or explode across the sky like a human cannonball? And would the sky be clear and blue or dark and overcast, like the pillar of cloud in Exodus that followed the Israelites during their march through the wilderness?
My grandfather was not a man to trouble himself with such questions. He had risen early that Sunday morning, shaved, put on his good suit — a gray two-piece, bought off-the-rack and on sale — and knotted one of the many garish paisley ties that his wife had made for him. My grandmother put on a long skirt and a wide-brimmed hat. They ate breakfast together, then spent a time in prayer in the living room of the brick bungalow. The Brethren elders had asked my grandfather not to come to church that morning. His predictions had caused too much tension among the believers.
My grandfather read his Bible, lingering over the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation, and the cryptic warnings that run like an erratic red stitch through the Gospels and the letters of Paul: "For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first; Then we which are alive shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air. Wherefore comfort one another with these words."
He read to comfort himself. Then he prayed. He prayed for his six children and for their families, for the grandchildren who
were still dead in their sins, that the Spirit would strive with them, roiling the waters of the heart until they acknowledged their utter depravity and professed their faith in the cross of Jesus Christ, in the blood shed at Calvary. He prayed for the Lord's glorious appearing, for the Rapture of the saints, for the promise of a new heaven and a new earth.
My grandmother played a hymn at the organ, then, feeling restless, took up her knitting. An old clock ticked away the
countdown. She paused in midstitch, displeased to realize that she would be leaving a work half finished. Setting aside her needles, she resolved to make some last-minute phone calls to loved ones.
One of the calls was to my mother. My grandmother told her that we should help ourselves to her homemade preserves and ginger cookies. "We won't be needing them," she said gaily.
This upset my mother. As she later pointed out, it insinuated that our family would be stuck with last summer's chutney while the saints feasted in glory. "Can you imagine the nerve?" she asked my father. A happy-go-lucky cowboy in greasy blue coveralls with a handlebar mustache, he raised his eyebrows and shrugged his shoulders, as if to say, "What are you going to do?" then returned to his basement workshop to bottle a batch of dandelion wine.
Such bad habits had brewed uncertainty in the mind of his parents. Since adolescence, my father had waged a cautious rebellion against the Brethren, needling them with his worldly behavior — growing long sideburns, smoking cigarettes, getting a motorbike — but always showing up on time for gospel meeting. My mother found his ungodliness impossible to resist. She had pursued the path of least resistance among the Brethern, submitting to the Protestant rituals of conversion and baptism under the eye of her pious and overbearing father. When she married the prodigal son of a prominent preacher, my mother launched a quiet rebellion. She never liked my father's homemade wine, but she was glad that he did.
The day wore on. My grandfather sat in an ancient recliner in the corner of the living room. The chair elevated his bad leg, which he'd injured in a childhood accident while playing with a loaded rifle. With his long legs suspended in midair, he
appeared to have already taken leave of the earth. But as hours passed and the skies stubbornly refused to part, his body seemed to acquire more mass. His gray eyebrows weighed on his brow bushy and unkempt like a bird's nest, his mind all wheels, turning.
In such moments, a man can take stock of his life. He may have looked back on his sacrifices, everything he had done to
separate himself from a sinful world and preach the gospel of repentance. Like many Brethren, during the Second World War he had rejected military service and spent years in a government logging camp. After the war, he embarked on a second exile in northern Quebec, taking along his young wife and newborn daughter. The winters were so cold it froze the milk in the baby's bottle. During the day, he studied French so that when evening came, he could go out into the streets and carry the gospel to the benighted Catholics.
It was his trial in the wilderness, a time of testing that prepared him for a life of itinerant ministry, a half century of living hand to mouth, earning what his tongue could wring from a handful of tightfisted believers and sending it home to a wife and six kids he barely knew. He waged a nightly battle for men's souls, preaching himself hoarse in mosquito-filled canvas tents, clapboard community halls, a stranger's living room, anywhere two or three gathered together in the Lord's name.
He might have spent a good while in this sort of soul-searching. Slowly he became aware of the shadows falling across the living room carpet. His wife hobbled into the kitchen on her plastic hip and stopped in front of the sink, where a roast
was thawing. She'd taken it from the freezer that morning. Just in case. She looked out the kitchen window upon the world they had both been so eager to shrug off: the garden of carrots and turnips and corn, the pallid tangle of birches, the rolling trapezoid of lawn. She clipped beans at the counter, while her husband rose and looked out toward the river in the gathering dark, its cold, silent course lost to human understanding.
Excerpted by permission of Walker & Company publishing. Copyright 2008. All rights reserved.
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